Promoting mental health, demystifying mental illness, countering stigma and discrimination

Helping Parents & Children cope with Mental Illness

It is important to let mental health staff know if there are children in the family/whanau.
Staff can help in giving information about the illness and in providing
support for the whole family.

How can children be affected by a family member's illness?
Some children cope well when their parent, brother or sister is mentally unwell, however this may not always be the case.  Children may have difficulty understanding what is happening when a member of the family experiences mental illness.  The younger the child, the lesser the chance of understanding what is happening around them.  Children may feel confused, frightened, or somehow believe that what is happening is their fault.

If it is the child's parent who is unwell, it is especially important that other family members check how the child is coping and how their needs are being met.  Some parents with mental illness are able to do this themselves, however, in some cases; children's needs may be forgotten or ignored.  In some circumstances, a child may be at risk of being physically or emotionally harmed.

How can you tell if a child is affected?
Children show their distress in many different ways.  Younger children may begin to demonstrate new and challenging behaviours or may become withdrawn.  Their schoolwork may be affected.  Children may start behaving as though they were younger than their age.  For example they might wet their bed after growing out of this some time ago.

Older children and adolescents may also become withdrawn or more rebellious.  They may spend more of their time away from home or increase their use of alcohol or drugs.
What can be done to help?
Parents should be prepared to ask for help.  There is no reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed.  Parents have told us that the three main things that assist them are:
  • Support, understanding and acceptance from family, friends and health professionals;
  • Knowledge about their illness
  • Regular medications.
Parents particularly value family and friends who keep in close contact, who are non-judgemental and have knowledge about the disability, and who provide practical help when they are unwell.
Parents may need help with simple things like help with household tasks or picking children up after school, and accessing respite care services.  If mental illness interferes with the parent's ability to meet the child's needs, another caring adult will need to ensure that the child's needs are being met.  This includes the child's physical needs for good nutrition, clean clothes, a safe environment and any medical care required.  It also includes the child's emotional needs for love, trust, security and self-esteem.
Children need to know that what is happening in the family is not their fault.  They need to be given information that is appropriate to their age to help them understand what is happening around them.
It is important to plan for the care of children when the parent is unwell or needs respite.  Sometimes, finding appropriate childcare can be difficult.
It is also important that childcare is provided by people who the child can trust and that there are not too many changes in caregivers.  Please feel free to contact a Social Worker at the service providing treatment to your relative, to discuss childcare options.
Family members could encourage parents to ask for support early.

Community agencies such as Barnardo's, Presbyterian Support Services, Methodist Social Services, Catholic Social Services, Open Home Foundation, can all offer practical support in managing the children's needs.

Who else can help?
It will be useful to let the child's school know.  Teachers and School Counsellors may be able to offer additional support to the child.
The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service at Taranaki Health offers counselling for children and families.
Tel: 06 753 7790 or Fax: 06 753 7791
Please see your GP for a referral.

SF Taranaki is committed to supporting families/whanau in partnership with treatment providers and advocates for family interventions as part of all treatment plans.
Tel: 06 757 9300              Email:
Level 3, Brougham House, 40 Devon St. West, NP.

For more information:

Contact your Primary Nurse, Community Key Worker or Social Worker at the service providing treatment to discuss any issues or concerns surrounding children.


Like Minds Taranaki gratefully acknowledges the financial support of this website by

The Ministry of Health

Feedback is always welcome
Like Minds Taranaki, 06-759-0966, email:


Taranaki Mental Health Sector